Roadside mannequins are inviting residents of Moss Point, Miss., to resume shopping at a local clothing store, restaurants are returning their dine-in services, and churches are re-opening their doors for services. Mayor Mario King described the burgeoning renewal in commerce and social life amidst the COVID-19 pandemic today as it swirled around him in his Gulf Coast town after Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves issued an executive order Tuesday that overruled local measures meant to stop the virus’ spread.
“His order completely makes our order null and void,” King, who closed businesses he deemed non-essential last week, told the Mississippi Free Press on Thursday afternoon. “So barbershops and salons are open today. People are actually at church making up Bible studies lost on Wednesday, so they’re having Thursday Bible studies. There are restaurants that re-opened their dine-in services today. … I understand they’re just trying to make a dollar, but if one person sneezes who has COVID-19 and someone else comes in, they’re possibly exposed to that. So his order puts our people at risk.”
Moss Point is located in Jackson County, which ranks no. 7 for the most novel coronavirus infections statewide, and where State officials confirmed an additional four cases this morning.
Mayor King: Reeves’ Order ‘Puts Mississippians in Harm’s Way’
On March 19, King ordered the town’s residents to “shelter in place,” meaning they had to stay at home to help stop the spread of the virus, making exceptions only for certain “essential” businesses. But Reeves’ order on Tuesday freed up retail shops, churches and other organizations to reopen, despite the fact that the mayor had ordered them closed in line with recommendations from medical experts across the country.
“I just think this is complete foolishness and foolery, and it’s embarrassing,” King said today. “I am embarrassed not just as a mayor, but as a citizen of Mississippi. We are the laughingstock of the country because our governor has enacted an order that does not only protect the safety and welfare of the people, but puts Mississippians in harm’s way.”
On Thursday morning, the Mississippi State Department of Health confirmed 108 more cases and one more death, bringing the statewide total to 485 confirmed cases and six deaths.
King’s March 19 order went further than most other mayors’, closing all indoor restaurants, houses of worship, coffee shops, entertainment venues, sports facilities, fitness centers, salons, barbershops and a number of other services he deemed “non-essential” by afternoon the next day. The mayor kept essential services, like health-care facilities, grocery stores, pharmacies and others open, but with strict social-distancing measures in place, like requirements that people stay at least 6 feet apart in various facilities.
When Reeves issued his executive order Tuesday, though, he offered a much broader definition of exempt “essential services” that includes businesses and organizations like dine-in service restaurants, bars, real estate services, construction services, barbershops, gun and ammo stores, retail department stores, houses of worship and “faith-based facilities.” The governor said in a press conference in Jackson this afternoon that he drew his list from a Department of Homeland Security list of “essential” businesses that should stay open, but many on his list are not in the federal version.
The governor’s order even specifically designates Uber and Lyft as “essential services.”
Tupelo Mayor: Order Helps Economy ‘at the Expense of Human Lives’
Across the state, mayors implemented orders in recent weeks restricting grocery stores, church gatherings and other businesses to only allow 10 people in at a time. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the Mississippi State Department of Health recommends a 10-person limit for all gatherings.
Under Reeves’ order, though, “any essential business or operation … shall not be subject to any 10-person gathering limitation or any other limitation or restriction inconsistent with this executive order.” The governor’s order declares that it supersedes any other decree or regulation issued by other “political subdivisions” or “governing bodies” that conflict with it or that “impose any additional freedom of movement or social distancing limitations on Essential Businesses of Operation.”
The Moss Point mayor is furious, and worries that the decision will cause harm to his town’s residents in the name of business interests.
“I definitely think that he is 100% putting economic interests before people’s health,” King said Thursday afternoon, referring to Reeves, who was a banking executive before Mississippians first elected him to serve as state treasurer in 2003. “And at this point in time, he should not be worried about the dollar because people’s lives are at stake. I am 100% confident in saying that he has invested more into the financial impact that this will have instead of the health impact. But without people, we won’t have any economy.”
Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton feels similarly.
“There’s no question that the purpose of the order was to keep businesses open, which is good for the economy,” Shelton told the MFP Thursday afternoon. “It’s definitely putting protections in place for the state’s economy. The flipside is that it’s doing that at the expense of human lives.”
Tupelo is the county seat of northeast Mississippi’s Lee County, where MSDH confirmed an additional three COVID-19 cases today, bringing the total there to 15.
‘Almost Worse Than No Action’
Despite the order’s clear wording, Reeves’ office has seesawed back and forth on what exactly it does. On Wednesday night, the governor’s office claimed to other media that a Jackson Free Press report on the order, discussed on the Rachel Maddow Show, was incorrect in reporting that it supersedes local orders. By Thursday afternoon, though, Reeves himself confirmed the reporting at a press conference and then issued a follow-up supplement to the executive order confirming that it does indeed supersede local orders that interfere with the “essential” businesses or services in his original executive order.
Local orders, the new supplement order reads, “may continue to be in effect and shall not be suspended or unenforceable, so long as the same provide the minimum applicable restrictions set out in Executive Order No. 1463 and do not impose restrictions that prevent any Essential Business or Operation as identified in Executive Order No. 1463 from operating at such level necessary to provide essential services and functions during this COVID-19 State of Emergency.”
Reeves did say at the press conference that he had told Oxford Mayor Robyn Tannehill that her order closing restaurants and bars around The Square could stand under his special restaurant provisions that allows those facilities to do sit-down service with 10 or fewer customers.
This afternoon, Starkville Mayor Lynn Spruill tweeted that her office “got clarification that we will be able to continue our prohibition of dining-in at our restaurants” and allow only takeout, curbside pickup and drive-thru,” which Reeves’ order specifically allows.
In Moss Point, though, restaurants have already begun to resume dine-in services today, Mayor King said. Shelton said today that he had heard reports of businesses he had ordered closed reopening in Tupelo, too, including car dealerships, but had not personally driven by to check. Reeves’ order mentions “car sales” three times as an example of an essential business, although that does not appear in the Department of Homeland Security document he referenced today as the source of his “essential” business list.
Regardless, Shelton said, the intent of Reeves’ order is crystal clear, no matter what his office claims. The Tupelo mayor has already amended his own orders to bring them into compliance with the governor’s order.
“I don’t really understand the confusion of the whole public push to say the executive order doesn’t do exactly what it says it does,” Shelton said Thursday. “It clearly states that it supersedes local orders in no uncertain terms.”
“Any order, rule, regulation or action by any governing body, agency or political subdivision of the state that imposes any additional freedom of movement or social distancing limitations on Essential Business or Operation, restricts scope of services or hours of operation of any Essential Business or Operation, or which will or might in any way conflict with or impede the purpose of this Executive Order is suspended and unenforceable during this COVID-19 State of Emergency,” Reeves’ original order stated plainly.
Shelton said his shelter-in-place order will technically remain in effect because Reeves’ order did not expressly prohibit shelter-in-place orders. But the shelter-in-place order allows for “essential travel,” and because “virtually every business is essential under the governor’s orders,” the Tupelo mayor said, that means activities like going shopping for non-essentials at a retail store is now permissible.
“The governor’s order is so broad, it would have been better if he had just said what’s not included,” Shelton said.
Tupelo began emergency preparations for the COVID-19 outbreak on Feb. 24, Shelton said. For weeks, he sought guidance from the governor’s office. Until this week, though, Reeves had taken very few concrete steps other than closing schools.
“When we reached out for state action, the word sent back to us was that each city and county was going to be on our own,” the Tupelo mayor said. “Then we started taking these actions and the governor says, ‘Well, wait a minute, you can’t do that.’ So now we have the governor’s order that differs from the hodgepodge of local orders all across the state.”
In his press conference today, Reeves complained that “some of the same folks upset today were upset a week ago” because he had not issued a consistent statewide safety order so deep into the crisis. Until his order Tuesday, strategies varied widely from town to town, county to county, and left mayors like Shelton feeling stranded by the governor.
Shelton still thinks Mississippi needs “uniform state action that levels the playing field for everybody economically across the state” and “protects” the state’s residents’ health, but the governor’s actions have not made things better, he said.
“The delayed action is almost worse than no action,” Shelton said.
King: Cities ‘Doing a Much Better Job Than’ Reeves
The Moss Point mayor said he is worried that Reeves’ order will compound a growing public-health disaster.
“Why are we putting all those people out there at risk? That is utterly ridiculous, and I am ashamed of our governor, and I cannot believe that he would do such a thing. I just cannot believe it,” King told the Mississippi Free Press.
While fewer than two dozen Jackson County residents are currently confirmed coronavirus patients, King worries about what the situation could be like over the next few weeks. He is looking nervously toward Louisiana, particularly New Orleans, where thousands are sick and hospitals are in danger of being overrun.
One major New Orleans medical center, Oschner Health, announced yesterday that 300 of its employees are in quarantine after 60 medical workers tested positive for COVID-19.
“Birmingham hospitals (in Alabama) are swarming, the New Orleans parishes, the areas neighboring us, are swarming with those cases. I am afraid that those hospitals are going to have to start helicoptering those people to our hospitals,” King said. “I don’t want that to happen when we really start testing and our people are not able to have ICU beds because they’re filling up with other people from other places because of negligence—at best—of our government.”
Jackson County has two hospitals with 48 ICU beds, but a majority of Mississippi’s counties have none at all, and many rural hospitals are in danger of closing, thanks in part to the refusal of Reeves and his predecessor to accept Medicaid expansion in Mississippi.
King said he wonders if Reeves really intended to override locals’ executive orders. Maybe, the mayor said, it was a mistake that Reeves simply refuses to fix.
“I just think that says a lot for him as a leader,” the Moss Point mayor said. “He has demonstrated his inability to lead us. And so if he can’t lead, I think he needs to step back and let the cities do what they’re doing, because we’re doing a much better job than he is.”
The governor’s actions came as President Donald Trump, whose leadership Reeves promised to emulate when he was a candidate for governor last year, began pushing for the country to start ramping down its COVID-19 social distancing and isolation measures earlier this week—even as the virus’ spread continues to accelerate across the country, with the U.S. now leading the world in confirmed cases.
On Thursday, Trump sent a letter to governors nationwide saying that his administration is working to publish new guidelines for state and local leaders to help making decisions about “maintaining, increasing, or relaxing social distancing and other mitigation measures they have put in place” in hopes that Americans can soon “resume their normal economic, social, and religious lives.”
Days before Reeves implemented his order that broadened the definition of “essential businesses” statewide, Mississippi Agriculture Commissioner Andy Gipson sent a letter to the governor asking him to expand the meaning of “essential” to include dozens of categories related to farming and food production in order to pre-empt local governments from closing business entities like pet supply stores, fishing supply vendors, timber farms and lumber manufacturers and farmer’s markets.
“I respect their commitment to local public health issues, but I believe it is imperative that local government does not interrupt the businesses listed below which are critical to the food supply chain of our entire state, region, and country,” Gipson wrote on March 20. “I respectfully request you consider local preemption language in any executive order or emergency response directives to ensure these essential businesses continue operation.”
The expanded definition of what is “essential” in Reeves’ order includes practically every exception that Gipson requested.
The Tupelo mayor told the MFP on Thursday that he hopes Mississippi’s leaders will listen to experts as the state continues to battle COVID-19.
“We should listen to doctors. We should listen to scientists. We should listen to the CDC and the Mississippi State Department of Health, and we should be proactive in saving lives. If it’s an emergency, we need to treat it like an emergency,” Shelton said.
On Thursday afternoon, the White House announced that the number of COVID-19 cases nationwide has surpassed 80,000. More than 1,000 U.S. residents have died after becoming infected with the virus, though the actual numbers are likely significantly lower than the true count, though, because testing capacity remains constrained in the U.S.
The Mississippi Free Press has an interactive map showing diagnosed coronavirus cases across the state.